The Welsh Government has created an agency to drive technology innovation in public services. Co-leaders Harriet Green and Myra Hunt share their plans
It is approaching a quarter of a century since the people of Wales voted in favour of establishing a national assembly with devolved governing powers; the 25th anniversary of the devolution referendum takes place on 18 September this year.
Clearly, a lot has happened since then: the world has changed in innumerable small and not-so-small ways, both in Wales, and far beyond its borders.
The operations of government – the kind of government that Welsh people chose for their country – have changed greatly too.
In 1997, fewer than one in 10 UK households was connected to the internet. It was the year Google was founded and the BBC launched its first website – some four years before Government Gateway appeared online, allowing people to access a small number of public services, including customs declarations and agricultural aid grants.
Hundreds more services have followed since, including many that are now delivered almost exclusively digitally. All the while the ranks of civil servants employed in digital, data and technology roles have swelled to almost 20,000 – led by the 800 or so that work in the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service and Central Digital and Data Office.
It would appear that the Welsh Government’s Centre for Digital Public Services – an arm’s-length body, established in September 2020 – has a lot to catch up on.
Its establishment co-incided with the start of work on a national Digital Strategy for Wales. Published six months later, the document set out a range of ambitions and actions across six core missions, focused on: digital services; digital inclusion; digital skills; digital economy; digital connectivity; and data and collaboration.
Although it has a role to play in supporting all aspects of the strategy, the foremost remit of CDPS is to progress the ambitions of the first mission, which CDPS chief executive Harriet Green describes as “the delivery of safe, secure, easy-to-use public services that are designed around the needs of the user”.
Green shares the CEO position with Myra Hunt, leading a team of eight full time equivalent staff plus a roster of “digital squads” which can be deployed to public sector bodies around Wales to help with service design and the adoption of agile methods. These teams – the use of which “ebbs and flows”, according to Hunt – takes the total team to about 40 people.
“One of the terms we like to use is that we are setting the digital agenda with Wales and for Wales. Our job is to bring everybody together, to get everybody to agree what the risks and challenges and opportunities are”
Given its comparative lack of in-house personnel resources, a key facet of CDPS’s work will be serving as a convening point for technology leaders and other stakeholders.
This corralling of support and ambition will be assisted by a tech leadership structure that includes three national chief digital officers: one for the Welsh Government itself; and one each for the local government and health sectors. Glyn Jones and Sam Hall respectively occupy the first two roles, while the latter position is currently being recruited for.
“CDPS has the cross-Wales role,” Green says. “One of the terms we like to use is that we are setting the digital agenda with Wales and for Wales – working with those chief digital officers in the specialist areas. And our job is to bring everybody together, to get everybody to agree what the risks and challenges and opportunities are, and work out who’s going to do what to meet those risks and opportunities.”
Setting a good example
But the centre intends to serve as much more than a muster point. It will also deliver “exemplar projects – to show what good looks like”, which, according to Green, will seek to embody the core agile tenets of user-centred and iterative design, and continuous improvement.
The CDPS is nearing the conclusion of a review of the existing landscape of digital services across the Welsh public sector. The results of this exercise will help identify where it could have the biggest impact by leading exemplar projects.
Hunt says: “There’s a range of criteria that we’re applying to that [review] and also looking at the maturity of the different services… [we are] really trying to define our service owners and service landscape, looking at where there are opportunities for departmental transformation – because that department is saying: ‘That’s how we want to work, that’s how we want to change’.”
The review, which is expected to publish a beta report in the next month, will also seek to ascertain where there are individual services that represent “low-hanging fruit” that is ripe for digitisation. This will create a “mixed and balanced portfolio” of projects where CDPS can lead transformation.
“The timing of the report is also fortuitous because we can dovetail in with the planning cycle of [agencies] and also their policy objectives,” Hunt adds.
The co-leaders namecheck a handful of areas and branches of the Welsh Government that they believe represent the most impactful opportunities for CDPS to enable transformation.
Among them are Natural Resources Wales – the responsibilities of which include overseeing farming, the environment, and weather warnings – and the Welsh Revenue Authority, which administers taxes on landfill disposal and land transactions; the latter is the equivalent of the Stamp Duty Land Tax levied in England and Northern Ireland.
“That is a department which is really interested in how do they deliver all of those services digitally… the opportunities in benefits and taxation are significant,” Hunt says.
Supporting technological reform in the NHS – in particular through assisting with the Welsh national Digital Services for Patients and Public programme that was launched a year ago – is a “big piece” of the picture, she adds.
“We’re looking at [things like] e-prescribing and digital in primary health care and we’ve got discovery [projects] in flight on this,” Hunt says.
“Everything we do, we view as an exemplar: it has to have further potential for scalability, or to demonstrate the value of an element like user-centred design, and how that helps you create a better service”
Green adds that the CDPS is currently engaged in a project to use digital tools to better support the delivery of adult social care by local authorities around Wales. “The project aims to address that situation whereby either you [yourself] or on behalf of a relative have asked for social care intervention and, at the moment, [people] can feel like that request has gone into the ether,” she says.
“We have set up a relatively simple, text-based solution, which gives you updates on where your request is at, who’s it with, and who should you next expect to hear from. So, these are relatively simple things, but that demonstrate the difference that you can make relatively quickly by sending in a digital squad.”
Green adds: “Everything we do, we view as an exemplar: so, it has to have further potential for scalability, or to demonstrate the value of an element like user-centred design, and how that helps you actually create a better service. So, everything we do is exemplary.”
The most obvious comparator for CDPS – as for many such organisations in governments around the world – is the Government Digital Service, which has now been a fixture in the Cabinet Office for more than 10 years.
Indeed, as has been the case with government digitisation agencies set up in various countries, the Welsh entity has already benefited from the expertise of GDS alumni, including Sally Meecham – who served as interim CEO before the appointment of Hunt and Green – and Rhiannon Lawson, who recently arrived as head of standards, having held a similar role in Whitehall.
CSW wonders whether it is beneficial to conceive of the centre as playing a similar role to GDS – particularly during its early years.
“I think it’s a really useful comparison – but we are constituted differently,” Hunt says. “We do not necessarily have the same kind of levers that GDS had in the early days – but we have the advantage of all the learnings and understanding and experience of GDS that we can draw on. There are similarities around assurance and standards and also that desire to mobilise squads to work with partner bodies – in partnership; I think that’s really important. The style of mine and Harriet’s working is very much to work in partnership and a lot of this is about winning hearts and minds, and cultural change. There is a great desire across the Welsh public sector to really improve digital services. But, also, we really need to bring in skills and expertise.”
The style of working Hunt alludes to has now been honed over more than 11 years spent job-sharing – most recently as the chief digital officer at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and before that as digital director at the British Council.
For the two leaders, who typically overlap on for some or all of Wednesday, such roles allow them – and, indeed, millions of others with caring responsibilities – to continue their career at a level of seniority commensurate to their experience and expertise.
Hunt says: “At the same time, your employer gets the benefit of two brains; so, even when I am on my days off, I am still thinking: ‘I wonder, if Harriet has picked up on X,Y or Z?’ – and then I’ll ping her a little text [to ask] something. You peer-review your decisions and your thoughts, and you do that robustly – because sometimes you differ – and then you have to come together on a shared position to lead your teams and interact with your stakeholders.”
Green adds: “When me and Myra started off, we were probably more anxious about the whole thing, and we tried really hard to be the same person … As we’ve grown in the job share, I think we have relaxed about that and we have really thought: ‘No, actually – let’s play to our strengths here’ – and I think we dovetail together, in terms of our strengths, in a multi-layered way, that we are more and more familiar with, and more and more comfortable to exploit. But we do have a mantra which we absolutely live by, which is that no one else has to work harder because there are two of us. So, we do all the inter-communication and briefing each other.”
Hunt and Green began their working lives as journalists at the BBC and enjoyed long and distinguished careers at the state broadcaster, rising to respective roles as head of new media for the corporation’s global news division, and as a commissioning editor for the BBC World Service.
The two knew of each other during those years but had not worked particularly closely together prior to both taking career breaks in the late noughties.
Around which time Hunt “came to live up the road” from Green and the pair – who now each had young children and did not want to return to a life of commuting to London five days a week – saw an opportunity to jointly apply for the role at the British Council.
Now, they are determined for CDPS to “walk the walk on being a modern organisation that does things differently”, Green says.
To which end “staff polices are absolutely crucial”; a recent example is a workplace policy for periods and menopause that is currently being refined via staff feedback and will, ultimately, form part of the organisation’s wellbeing policy for workers.
The digital agency has also appointed 27-year-old astrophysicist and start-up founder Jessica Leigh Jones as chair of the organisation.
“She is amazing, and she exemplifies that statement of intent about CPDS’s [desire] to do things differently, and to walk the walk,” Green says.
Talking my language
Asked what success for CDPS would look like more widely over the next year or two, Hunt says that the deputy minister overseeing the work of the agency – Lee Waters, whose brief includes climate change, as well as digital government – expects “tangible examples of delivery and services”.
“We would want to see tangible improvements in some identified services, and also the beginnings of change and transformation within departments. I think bringing in new roles into departments is really important – [such as] product managers, and service owners – as is the retraining of staff: we’ve trained about 100 people so far, and we have a pipeline of 500 for the next few months. The reskilling of the workforce and training of public sector employees, I think, is a really important deliverable this year.”
In 2017, the Welsh Government set out an objective to double the number of citizens that speak the Welsh language by 2050; the current tally is less than 600,000, out of a population of about 3.2 million.
The CDPS aims to support this drive for bilingualism, and its training offering already operates under both English and Welsh branding – Digital Campus and Campws Digidol – and there are plans for future resources to do the same.
Whatever language is being used, Hunt acknowledges that driving the transformation towards a modern government can be “a long, hard, and painful journey”.
But Green and Hunt add that Wales has some natural advantages, and has already laid some important groundwork – all of which made the challenge of leading the country on its digital journey an appealing one.
“This is an opportunity to make a real difference, and that’s incredibly exciting in a small nation that could build its identity globally"
Hunt cites the singular digital potential of small nations and large regions, such as the Flanders region of Belgium and the Basque region – both of which, like Wales, are multilingual and have a comparatively high level of devolved governance.
“This is an opportunity to make a real difference, and that’s incredibly exciting in a small nation that could build its identity globally,” she says.
Green, meanwhile, was attracted to the CDPS role in part by “the simplicity of the digital strategy statement – which is about improving the lives of everyone in Wales through collaboration, innovation and better public services – which is just fantastic”.
“And our minister, Lee Waters, says to us: ‘get me more user researchers’. I haven’t come across a minister that says that before!,” she adds. “Having that political backing and drive – he reads all our week notes! – was incredibly attractive… There is also the fact that we can bring everything that we know and all the things that we’ve experienced together – and, because of the scale of it, this is something that you can get your arms right around, and really drive change.”
But change does not always equate to transformation.
“We’re wary of using that word,” Green says. “We just need to keep getting better and better – it is not a transformation that’s going to happen by a certain date; it’s a forever thing. But we want to drive the next phase of CDPS, so we can show what the future could be like.”